Back to Bugs!

I think this is perhaps the first time in Artful Scientist history I have failed to publish on a Tuesday. Shame on me! No excuses! We shall see if today’s post is any good given that I am SCRAMBLING to write it.

In positive news, one of my favorite art/science hobbies is becoming possible again: Insect photography!

I used to be quite devoted to insect photography. For about a year I maintained an Instagram account devoted to my tiny subjects (@ribugboy if you’re interested). However, over time I realized that I wasn’t doing too much science communication with my photos because I was rushing to get them out every day. So now the bug Instagram remains as a digital record of an experiment in social media engagement… and I still photograph insects every summer.

Brown butterfly with orange and black eyespots on the wings resting on white flowers.
One of my favorite photos from that old Instagram… and I think the one that got the most likes too!

Entomology wasn’t my first scientific love, but it is the one that stuck the most. It’s the only scientific field I ever seriously considered pursuing professionally. Obviously, creative science communication won out over becoming a research scientist. Though it’s not too late. Maybe one day I’ll go for the PhD in entomology… Nonetheless, insects still occupy a special place in my mind.

For me, their appeal is in their exotic forms. They’re like little space aliens. They seem to have very little in common with humans, both physically and behaviourally. And yet, there’s some sort of personality to be had behind those eyes. I think they can be downright cute. There’s something both anthropomorphic and completely alien about them. I think this is what makes them such excellent subjects for photography if one has the right tools.

I think an evil, elitist part of me also appreciates that the tools for insect photography are specialized. As we know from some of my past posts (like this one) on technology and design, I’m very excited by the ways that technological tools dictate the way we look at things aesthetically. While you can produce photos of insects with a smartphone (there are a few on my insect Instagram actually!), even this generally requires a specialized lens to attach to the smartphone for higher magnification. With a DSLR, which I use for most of my photography, the best photos are created with specialized macro lenses. The one I use has a 1:1 magnification, meaning that the subject will be projected life sized onto the small camera sensor. Because the sensor represents the area that is converted into the digital photograph, this results in larger than life reproductions in the photographs. There are a rare few macro lenses that can even go as far as 2:1 magnification. But these are difficult to use out in nature without producing wobbly, blurry images.

Unclear photo of a yellow and black wasp in flight.
Not one of my better photos, but a great example of the challenge of photographing an insect up close. The slightest movement introduces blur.

Insect photography lets me connect with these creatures in a unique way. The view from my eyes will never match the view from a macro lens. Sometimes I equally enjoy simply watching the insects through the viewfinder. Another important detail is that it lets me capture them in a way that does them no harm. While I created a large insect collection for my university coursework, and I know intellectually that casual insect collection does little to influence insect populations over time, it got more and more difficult to kill insects as I progressed as an entomologist. It all felt rather cold-blooded. So I have put away my net for now. I’ll stick to photography.

Two red and black ladybugs mating on a concrete surface.
Some of my first Scottish insects captured! Insect sex is one of my favorite photography subjects. You get two insects in one shot and they tend to be fairly still!

And with another summer approaching, and in another COUNTRY no less, I hope to have many exciting photographs to share over the coming months. Who says Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year? I say it’s INSECT SEASON.

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